TRAVERSE CITY — Sarah Bean drove a military truck in Iraq and suffered nothing worse than hearing bullets zing near her passenger window in the dead of night.
She returned to Traverse City a few years ago and recently decided on a social work career — to support her two young children and for her own personal growth.
The Northwestern Michigan College outreach staff made signing up for classes easy, said Bean, a single mother.
“I probably wouldn’t be in college if it weren’t for Scott and the other people who work in the office,” she said.
Bean, 26, referred to Scott Herzberg, who filled a newly created position last fall as “point of contact” for veterans, reservists, and military families. NMC administrators gave Herzberg a blank slate to welcome veterans, and he’s taken on the job with zeal.
Herzberg points to NMC’s record enrollment this spring of well over 200 veterans, twice the number since 2009.
He credits NMC’s waiver of enrollment fees. His office also helps vets connect to the area’s myriad of agencies for help. And there’s a new local chapter of Student Veterans of America to promote a sense of camaraderie.
All this has pushed NMC into the top 15 percent of the country’s colleges most friendly to veterans, a G.I. Jobs ranking.
“I want to be in the top 1 percent,” Herzberg said.
By next fall, he wants a place on campus where vets and others can relax, Skype, or work on computers. Right now, some vets sit in their cars to decompress.
“That works in the warm weather with your windows down and a Jimmy John’s,” he said. “On Jan. 5, at two below, it’s not so great.”
Veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan by the tens of thousands and are enrolling in college, thanks to the G.I. bill. Yet 88 percent of the 800,000 veterans now enrolled will drop out in their first year, according to the American Council on Education.
One out of every 10 student vets thought of suicide often or very often; 7.7 percent attempted it, said a National Center for Veterans Studies study.
Those numbers prompted colleges to pay closer attention to students returning from war zones.
“I think we’re trying to get ahead of any situation or concerns and ensure NMC vets have a place to go, a buddy to go see, and I think the military liaison is a great step forward,” said Jim Press, a faculty adviser for the veteran’s student group.
Herzberg doesn’t know the student veterans’ drop-out rate at NMC, but is setting up a tracking system now so he’ll know in the future.
Michael Rutledge, an NMC instructor, suffered from post traumatic stress disorder after returning to the states in 2004 after 22 years as an Army artilleryman. He was haunted, in particular, by the sight of 3,000 bodies he witnessed in Iraq as a United Nations observer in 2003.
“They were supposed to be political prisoners, but when I saw women and children …” he said.
Rutledge used his veterans’ benefits to earn two master’s degrees, including one from NMC’s University Center. His transition to civilian life was eased with Onyx, a therapy dog, who calmed him and watched for balance problems caused by an inner ear injury.
Rutledge said that younger, newly discharged vets are more apt to be aggressive in the classroom, challenging students, for example, who make provocative statements.
“I’ve never seen it in my own classroom, but I’ve read that it happens,” he said.
Veterans can get dismayed when students text during a lecture, show up late, or blow off homework. In a war setting, discipline matters, along with figuring out how to survive, he said.
Those traits make vets excellent students who meet deadlines, obey instructions, and don’t require lengthy explanations, said Rutledge, adding that a student vet has never dropped out of any of his classes.
“You can shed the spit and polish appearance, but the desire to set goals and achieve them, to constantly push past your own limitations, you never lose that,” he said.
An extended education course on post traumatic stress disorder will be taught at Northwestern Michigan College next month.
Instructor Linda Fletcher, a retired Army Nurse Corps officer, said she created the course, "Combat PTSD — the Facts and the Future," to share the different ways PTSD plays out in individual lives and the changing views on how to manage it.
Fletcher said she'll focus on disassociation — distancing or blocking unbearable memories — and the role it plays in PTSD.
The course is designed for those in helping professions, families and those with PTSD. The course will be taught April 23 and 30, 6:30-8:30 p.m. and costs $35. Please call 995-1700 to register.